In the neighborhood playgrounds in the Southside of Chattanooga, William Nicholson doesn't see places for his three children to play. He sees broken glass and vandalism, unstable equipment and police car tire tracks in the grass.
"There's a lot of negative atmosphere," said the 29-year-old resident of Emma Wheeler Homes, a housing project in the Piney Woods neighborhood. "You don't want your child going to a playground with profanity spray-painted on it."
This barrier to healthy, active play is just the type of problem local health advocates want to tackle.
SOUTHSIDE AND EAST CHATTANOOGA
* Population: 33,000
* Median household income: Less than $20,000
* Poverty rate: 29.2 percent
Source: Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department
ON THE WEB
With the help of a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, local organizers aim to gather insights directly from residents of low-income regions of Chattanooga, particularly in East Chattanooga and the Southside, in an effort to start reversing trends in childhood obesity.
"We want to make an environment where (families) have the opportunity to make good choices," said Lori Quillen, policy analyst with the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, one of the partners who will work on the project. "What our research is showing is, oftentimes, those choices are not there or they're harder to make" in communities that are underserved.
Today, local health department officials are announcing the grant of $360,000 over four years. The grant is one of 50 recently awarded by the private foundation to help communities focus on healthy living.
The money is funding the work of two health department employees who will reach out to Chattanooga's residents about the barriers to active living, such as playgrounds that are off-limits outside school hours and lack of access to grocery stores that sell affordable, fresh produce.
The employees then will go to work addressing those problems, in partnership with other players such as the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department, the Ochs Center and East Side Task Force, planners say.
Almost one-third of all U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and thus at risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
The last local survey done in 2002 found that 15 percent of Hamilton County children were considered overweight and 12 percent were obese, said John Bilderback, program manager for Step One, the anti-obesity program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, which received the grant.
Advocates are trying to address the environmental factors that contribute to obesity, Mr. Bilderback said.
"I highly doubt that 60 (percent) to 70 percent of our population wants to be overweight and obese and have all the chronic conditions that go with it," he said. "There are many other variables that play into that."
Focus groups held over the past year with residents of low-income neighborhoods in Chattanooga illuminated challenges facing the areas, said Rick O'Rear, recreation division manager for the department of parks and recreation, who has attended the sessions.
"It just hit home that, even though we have a lot of great things out there, we might be missing certain areas," he said. Improvements "may be as simple as just improving a sidewalk, putting in a crossing light, something that might make a connection between one of our facilities or a playground" and residents of these neighborhoods.
Joint-use agreements on school playgrounds could be another way to create more usable play space for children, Mr. Bilderback said. The agreements can help officials figure out the liability and safety issues that result in playgrounds being closed to the public on afternoons and weekends, he said.